Azerbaijan and Armenian-backed forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to a ceasefire on Tuesday, after three days of heavy fighting claimed dozens of lives and fuelled fears of all-out war in the southern Caucasus.
Azeri and Nagorno-Karabakh defence officials declared a halt to fighting from noon, after the fiercest clashes since the end of a 1988-94 conflict that saw the region’s ethnic-Armenian majority fight for independence from Azerbaijan.
Remote and mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh has run its own affairs – with major support from Armenia itself – since the end of the war, which killed some 30,000 people and displaced about one million, the vast majority of them Azeris.
Nagorno-Karabakh is still seen internationally as part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia warned this week that sustained fighting could prompt it to recognise the region’s independence and formalise its military support for the area, while raising the spectre of full-scale war in a strategic and volatile part of the world.
Fears for a wider conflict were particularly acute at a time when the Syrian conflict had severely strained relations between Russia and Turkey, the main backers of Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively.
According to reports from Azeri and Nagorno-Karabakh officials, more than 40 people were killed, including several civilians, after clashes involving heavy artillery fire, tanks, drones and attack helicopters erupted on Friday night.
Both sides accused the other of starting the fighting, and of targeting civilians living near the frontline.
Senior US, Russian and EU officials repeatedly issued expressions of serious concern and urgent calls for calm around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is due to visit Armenia later this week, its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is expected in Azerbaijan, and envoys from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are also scheduled to visit both countries in the coming days.
The OSCE's so-called Minsk Group – which brokers talks over Nagorno-Karabakh and is co-chaired by the US, Russia and France – met in Vienna on Tuesday for urgent talks.
The states in attendance said they “strongly condemn the outbreak of unprecedented violence . . . We urge the sides to cease using force immediately. There is no military solution to the conflict”.
“The deterioration of the situation on the ground demonstrates the need for an immediate negotiation, under the auspices of the co-chairs, on a comprehensive settlement,” the Minsk Group added.
Before the halt in fighting, Nagorno-Karabakh officials claimed that Turkish instructors were assisting Azerbaijan’s military, and Azeri officials warned that the country’s forces may target Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital unless alleged artillery strikes on Azeri villages near the frontline ceased.
Turkey’s leaders have vowed full support “to the end” for Muslim Azerbaijan, and predicted that Nagorno-Karabakh would return sooner or later to Azeri control.
"I express my condolences to all Azeris . . . over the deaths of Azeri citizens resulting from Armenian attacks," Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Tuesday.
“The whole world needs to know that Turkey will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Azerbaijan against Armenian aggression and occupation until the end of time,” he added.
Azeri foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov said he told EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in a phone call that a "serious political process should start in the settlement of the conflict" and called for Armenian forces to leave "all occupied territories of Azerbaijan".
His Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, said his country had warned repeatedly that "Azerbaijan intentionally takes the path of escalation of the situation and has an overt intention to use force".
“The urgent and definite steps of the international community are ever more imperative now to stabilise the situation, and to bring Azerbaijan back to the table of negotiations,” he added.